Why Religion Matters

Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and the Pope focus on why faith is good for society and how to promote its free practice.

(photo: Shutterstock)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Religious freedom is good for society, including for economic growth, and the social sciences are producing data to prove it, said Mary Ann Glendon, president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

Glendon, a U.S. law professor, said the pontifical academy’s meeting April 29-May 3 looked at “Universal Rights in a World of Diversity: The Case of Religious Freedom.”
The social scientists, including political scientists, economists and legal scholars from a number of religious traditions, heard reports on how restrictions on religious practice are increasing in many parts of the world, but also how many scholars who once ignored religion’s role in society are now documenting its positive contributions.

“New research challenges the ‘mantra’ that religion is a cause of social strife,” Glendon told reporters at the Vatican May 4. While religion can be used to promote conflict, she said, the data prove that more often it is “an important factor in promoting development, democracy and peace.”

“Some studies indicate that violence actually tends to be greater in societies where religious practice is suppressed, and that promotion of religious freedom actually advances the cause of peace by reducing interreligious conflict,” she said.

Glendon said the members of the pontifical academy agreed that different models of religious freedom, usually reflecting a nation’s history and culture, can be equally effective, but they did not reach a consensus on what constitutes legitimate pluralism and who decides what is legitimate.

Different models, for example, can have a different starting point, such as France’s form of religious freedom that grew from a perceived need to protect the state from an interfering church, and the U.S. model, which was “initially devised to protect the various Protestant religions from the state and to promote peaceful coexistence among Protestant confessions,” she said.

No country has full religious freedom, Glendon said. A nation’s obligation to protect all citizens and ensure an ordered social life necessarily means placing some boundaries on what various groups in society are free to do.

In his message to the academy, Pope Benedict XVI said that “every state has a sovereign right to promulgate its own legislation and will express different attitudes to religion in law.”

Some countries give religions and believers broad freedoms, “while others restrict it for a variety of reasons, including mistrust for religion itself,” the Pope said.

Pope Benedict said the Vatican “continues to appeal for the recognition of the fundamental human right to religious freedom on the part of all states and calls on them to respect and, if need be, protect religious minorities.”

“God expects of man a free response to his call,” the Pope said, and so no one should be forced to believe and no one should be impeded from following his or her conscience.

Allen Hertzke, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma and a researcher on religious freedom, told reporters, “Human beings are spiritual creatures who flourish best when they’re allowed to give voice to that fundamental dignity.”

Hertzke, one of the speakers at the academy’s meeting, said in every religion and in every part of the world, an increasing number of leaders and scholars are making the point that “coercion is not only wrong religiously — because you cannot coerce voluntary submission to God — but it’s counterproductive to societies. It produces bad social outcomes” by increasing oppression, repression and social tension.

Glendon said the meeting participants included members of the Hindu, Jewish and Muslim faiths: “Every continent, many regions and all the major faiths were represented at our meeting.”